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The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
Poem: "But One End"

This poem came out of the March 20, 2012 bonus fishbowl.  It was inspired by a prompt from DW user aoifes_isle and an earlier comment by the_vulture.  It has been sponsored by janetmiles.  This poem belongs to the series Path of the Paladins, and you can find out more about that on the Serial Poetry page.

But One End

The village of Sheep's Coffin was
more than half empty, cottages sagging
toward the rutted streets.
The sheep were long gone to the raids
but that did not stop the raids from coming
or the bandits and deserters from sneaking in
by twos and threes to see what might be left
that they could steal.

"That place looks creepy,"
Ari said to Shahana as they stood
on the hill overlooking the village.
"Do we really have to do this?"
She eyed the pair of rabbits they'd snared
to trade for trail food.

Shahana sighed.  "Yes, we do.
We're out of salt and tea and grits.
They'll have the grits at least,
and salt if we're lucky.
We'll wear our armor and shop fast,
and hopefully no trouble will come of it."

They found the grits easily enough,
but there was no salt to be had in the tiny store.
An old man on the corner
peddled bags of roasted chicory root,
which he swore was as good as coffee,
which he said was more or less like some kind of tea.
Well, it was bound to be better than plain hot water.

Shahana was determined to procure some salt,
so the old man directed her to the public house,
all they had left after the raids ruined the tavern and the inn.
Shahana and Ari walked through the narrow, reeking alley
to bang on the kitchen door and ask after salt.
When the door creaked open, Ari took one look
at the crowded, sweltering kitchen and said,
"I'll just wait out here."

Ari waited patiently enough,
until a hand snaked over her mouth
and someone tried to drag her away.

With reflexes honed by daily sparring,
Ari rammed an armored elbow into her attacker's ribs,
then whipped out her belt knife and stabbed backwards.
A choked gasp sounded in her ear as the hand slackened.
Ari shouted for Shahana as soon as her mouth was free.
Grabbing the wrist, Ari spun around
and shoved the man away.

He fell on his back, twitching feebly.
Blood pooled underneath him
and scarlet bubbles flecked his lips.

The door burst open and Shahana appeared,
sword drawn and gleaming in the dim alley.
"He -- he tried to kidnap me," Ari said.
Even as Shahana came to look at him,
the fallen man coughed and died.

"He would  have kidnapped you,
and sold you to the slavers;
I lost my daughter that way last year,"
the pubkeeper said grimly,
coming up beside them.
"You've surely done us a service, warlady.
We have one watchman left.  I'll go fetch him."
He gave the body a vicious kick before walking away.

"I'm going to be sick," Ari said,
just enough warning for Shahana
to catch her braid and keep it out of the way
as Ari heaved up her meagre breakfast.

Shahana waited until she was done
before saying gently, "I know it's a hard thing
to kill a man, especially the first time."

"No it wasn't," Ari said with a hoarse laugh.
"It wasn't hard at all.  It was quick and easy.
It was too easy."

"Ari, my novice," Shahana said, "most people
do not have a paladin's talent or training.
He may have thought he could take you,
but in the end, he was just a ruffian
while you are becoming a paladin of Gailah."

Ari scrubbed her hands over her face.
She took her water flask from her belt to rinse her mouth.
"I wish the watchman would get here," she said.
"It's just as well," Shahana said.
"There's one thing left to do here,
and it won't benefit from an audience."

"What?" Ari said, shivering.
"Look at him," said the paladin,
tipping her head toward the corpse.
Ari looked, and saw the pale tenuous ghost
struggling fruitlessly to free itself from its deathground.

"So open the gate," Ari said.
Shahana shook her head.
"This time it is yours to do," she said.
"You must find the way between here and heaven."

Ari fumed for a long minute,
still feeling sick and angry and scared
from the fight and its increasingly unpleasant aftermath.
What she wanted to do was grab the ghost by the scruff
and sling it through the door, like pitching a cat
out of the kitchen for spilling the day's milk.

But that was the kind of thinking
that put people on Gorrein's path,
and Ari thought to herself that she would rather
be sold to slavers than give herself to Gorrein.

So she slipped the fallen star out of its pouch
and cupped it in the warm hollow of her hand,
trying to think of Gailah and Her grace
and the hope that somewhere beyond this sorry world
there might lie peace for the ghost of a scrawny ruffian.

Radiance poured out of her fingers
and all of a sudden,
there was the door outlined in midair,
as slim and brilliant as candlelight.
Ari leaned against the door, pushing hard
with her whole self, and slowly
it began to swing open.
Warm energy spilled over her
like a waterfall of sunbeams.

"Go," she said
to the trembling ghost,
and it went.

Ari let go of the door,
which winked out as if it had never been,
except that she knew it was still there,
just less noticeable now.
Exhausted, she leaned against the wall
of the alley and panted for breath.

Presently the watchman came,
and looked at the dead man,
and confirmed him as a procurer.
He apologized to Shahana and Ari
for the village's wretched hospitality
as he loaded the corpse into a cart
so that it could be taken away for disposal.

"This is a poor village," he said.
"We have no danger-gold to give you in thanks,
but I can offer this from what's left of the watch stores."
He held out a brick of salt and another of sugar.
The pubkeeper added a little keg of hard cider,
saying, "In memory of my daughter."

Shahana nodded, and packed away the offerings
next to the supplies they had bartered for.
She let Ari lean on her as they left,
and really that was the only thing
that kept Ari on her feet as they walked away.

Eventually Shahana deposited Ari on a blanket
and set up camp mostly by herself.
Ari didn't care that it was the middle of the day;
she just wanted to rest.
But she couldn't seem to stop thinking.

"I didn't even mean to kill him, not really,"
she said softly.  "I just --
he grabbed me and I knew he meant me harm,
and I just reacted."

"That's what the training is for, Ari,
to protect you when you don't have time to think,"
Shahana said.
"I still feel bad about it," Ari said.

"Of course you do," Shahana said.
"Any paladin would."
"He was a bad person, though,"
Ari said.

"Quite a terrible person,
to hear the village tell it," Shahana agreed.
"That is the part you must remember.
He chose a life of anger and evil.  He chose
to practice violence and kidnapping and slavery,
rather than learn some honest trade."

She held Ari's gaze with her own, then finished,
"The path of violence for its own sake
has but one end. 
That one."

Ari could only nod
in solemn agreement.
Then she pulled the blanket around herself
and went to sleep.

* * *

Note: In case you're curious, "coffin" in this context doesn't mean a box for burying the dead, but rather part of a sheep's foot.

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2 comments or Leave a comment
janetmiles From: janetmiles Date: August 25th, 2012 01:58 am (UTC) (Link)
Poor Ari.

But, also, strong and resolute Ari.

Do all ghosts need help getting through the door, or just those who've died violently? Or is it suddenly rather than violently? Or am I missing the point entirely?
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: August 25th, 2012 03:18 am (UTC) (Link)


>>Poor Ari.

But, also, strong and resolute Ari.<<


>> Do all ghosts need help getting through the door, or just those who've died violently? Or is it suddenly rather than violently? Or am I missing the point entirely? <<

Most people, when they die, do not require assistance to cross over; and for many of those who linger briefly, a funeral service is sufficient to finish the job. The ones who get stuck are those with issues. Sudden, violent, or unnatural death is a major risk factor in creating ghosts. So are very strong feelings, especially if the person has left something unfinished. That takes more work to fix.
2 comments or Leave a comment